President Johnson’s Impeachment Trial

Today’s post comes from Tom Eisinger, an archivist in the Center for Legislative Archives at the National Archives in Washington, DC. It is part two of a two-part series on the impeachment of President Andrew Johnson, which occurred 150 years ago. 

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Articles of Impeachment for the trial of Andrew Johnson, 1868. (National Archives Identifier 306274)

On March 4, 1868, the House of Representatives formally presented 11 articles of impeachment to the Senate, making Andrew Johnson the first President in the country’s history to be impeached.

Most of the articles of impeachment dealt with various issues surrounding President Johnson’s alleged violation of the Tenure of Office Act, although a few, like Article 11, did not do so directly. Article 11 accused President Johnson of declaring the 39th Congress unconstitutional because it was a Congress of only part of the states.

From the beginning, the trial garnered considerable public and press attention, aided by the Senate opening up the visitors’ gallery to the public.

Every day the Senate printed 1,000 tickets, usable only for that day, and members of Congress received hundreds of requests each day for these tickets. It was not until the final deliberations that the Senate closed the visitors’ gallery to the public.

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Admission Ticket, Trial of President Andrew Johnson, 1868. (Records of the Supreme Court of the United States, National Archives)

Chief Justice Salmon Chase presided over the trial. Former Attorney General Henry Stanbery led President Johnson’s defense team. He had resigned as Attorney General to devote all of his time and energy to the President’s trial defense.

John A. Bingham of Ohio was the chairman of the House impeachment managers. Two other prominent House managers were Benjamin Butler of Massachusetts and Thaddeus Stevens of Pennsylvania.

House Impeachment Managers, Seated: Benjamin F. Butler, Thaddeus Stevens, Thomas Williams, John A. Bingham. Standing: James F. Wilson, George S. Boutwell, John A. Logan, photograph by Mathew Brady, 1868. (National Archives Identifier 528423)

The Senate acted quickly on the trial, with procedural motions starting the day after they received the impeachment articles.

However, the trial did not get under way with full force until the end of March, when the House managers presented their case before the Senate from March 30 to April 9. The President’s defense presented its case several days later, from April 15 to 20.

Senator Edmund G. Ross, photograph by Mathew Brady, ca. 1868. (National Archives Identifier 526884)

Ultimately, the House managers decided that their best chance of conviction was with Article 11. The Senate voted on this article of impeachment first on May 16.

While Republicans held more than a two-thirds majority in the Senate, several Republicans had already indicated they would vote “not guilty.” Combining those votes with the known Democratic votes, there was little room for error for those who desired a guilty verdict.

The deciding vote turned out to be that of Edmund Ross. Those who knew him thought that Ross would vote in favor of conviction.  However, when his turn to vote came, Ross very quickly voted “not guilty,” thus guaranteeing there would not be enough votes to convict President Johnson.

To this day, Edmund Ross’s motives for voting “not guilty” are still being debated.

One theory is that President Johnson’s friends made use of a $150,000 slush fund to bribe the senator. Another is that he was not happy with the prospect of Benjamin Wade, president pro tempore of the Senate, becoming President. It has even been put forward that multiple senators voting after Ross would have cast the deciding “not guilty” vote if Ross had not, so Ross’s act was not as “heroic” as some have put forward.

Regardless, Ross’s vote sealed the “not guilty”verdict. Unsure of the next step forward, Republicans recessed temporarily before coming back 10 days later to vote on Articles 2 and 3. Both of those votes failed by the same one-vote margin, effectively ending President Johnson’s impeachment trial. Johnson went on to serve the last few months of his term.

Congress eventually repealed the Tenure of Office Act in 1887.

Article 11 Tally Sheet, Impeachment Trial of Andrew Johnson, May 16, 1868. (National Archives Identifier 306275)



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